11 States Trying Really Hard to Keep Poor, Black, and Student Voters From Voting

Across the country, new Republican governors have found the policies that they're enacting are less popular than the promises on which they campaigned. 

Voters are experiencing extensive buyer's remorse in state after state, but while Republicans maintain control, they're doing everything in their power to consolidate their power. And one of the best ways to ensure future victories is to make sure voters who oppose you don't make it to the polls in the first place.

So under the pretense that "voter fraud" (which is basically nonexistent) is a serious problem, conservative governors and state legislatures are pushing through laws that severely limit access to the vote. from the elimination of same-day voter registration to unduly strict voter ID requirements. These may not sound like that big of a deal. But when it comes to on-the-ground voting patterns, they can substantially impact turnout.

It just so happens that these laws overwhelmingly target groups that tend to vote for Democrats: students, people of color, lower-income folks, and urban residents. 

Elimination of early voting periods means longer lines at the polls--and more people turning away because they simply don't have the time to wait. And imagine a mailing telling thousands of confused new voters that their ID requirements have changed, then imagine being challenged over your documents -- that's straight-up voter intimidation. Many people will stay home rather than risk embarrassment, or simply forget until the last minute that they haven't updated their driver's license. 

Over the course of history we've fought to increase the number of people eligible to vote, extending the ballot to previously disenfranchised constituencies. Now, as former President Bill Clinton notes, we've forgotten that history. The new class of GOP governors are accelerating attacks on voter rights in time for pivotal elections, and they know what they're doing. Clinton told the Campus Progress National Conference, “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the other Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

Sixteen senators submitted a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to investigate whether the Voting Rights Act, one of the crown jewels of Civil Rights-era legislation, invalidates these state provisions.

Twenty states saw new proposed voter ID laws this year; 14 states saw attempts to strengthen existing voter ID requirements. We break down the 11 worst, but these are far from the only ones—the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that only three states don't have a voter ID law and didn't consider one this year.

1. Kansas

“With the stroke of a pen, the great state of Kansas became the gold standard in making it almost impossible to register to vote,” Rachel Maddow said when she reported on Kansas's new voter ID law, which requires voters to submit a birth certificate or passport when they register to vote, to prove their citizenship.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, formerly of the radical anti-immigrant group FAIR, was the force behind this bill, and before his stint as secretary of state he helped write Arizona's infamous “Papers, Please” immigration bill, SB 1070. He also originally sought for his office the ability to prosecute election fraud, to impose harsher penalties on those convicted of committing election fraud, and to require proof of citizenship in 2012 instead of 2013. Legislators decided that giving him those powers wasn't a good idea—but he still wants them.

The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that Kobach has a long history of facing complaints of racial profiling, anti-immigrant bias, and even accusations of ties to white supremacists. In 2004, in a campaign for Congress, he accused his opponent of associating with a group that supports “homosexual pedophilia.” That group was the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign.

And his birth certificate obsession extends to the president—or at least, to making birther jokes on the campaign trail.

Maddow pointed out that many people register to vote when they run across a voter registration drive out in public, or in other grassroots registration drives, which will become nearly impossible. State Rep. Ann Mah told Maddow that the law will be challenged and that it has “holes in it big enough to drive a truck through.”

2. Wisconsin

Scott Walker's credited with kicking off the backlash to the 2010 crop of Republican governors. Six of his Republican state senators are facing recall votes, and it's practically certain that he'll face recall himself. So naturally, targeting voters is his next move.

Meredith Clark called Walker's voter suppression bill his “evil genius masterpiece,” and it's easy to see why. The bill changes the residency requirement from 10 days to 28 days before the election (effective immediately), shortens early voting (also effective immediately), enacts a strict photo ID requirement as of 2012 that will require state overhaul of student ID as well as requiring extra proof of residency from students, and just to make things more confusing, requires poll workers to start asking for ID right away, even though it's not required until 2012.

Clark noted:

According to a University of Milwaukee study, non-white Wisconsin voters are far less likely to have a valid driver’s license than white voters, and nearly a quarter of voters older than 65 lack one. This means thousands of elderly and men and women of color will be required to pay for new identification cards before they will be allowed to exercise their right to vote. There are four times as many people of color living in poverty as there are white people. Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor called it a poll tax, and she’s right.

Along with the six Republicans who ran as Democrats in the recall elections last week (all defeated), Walker's attacks on voting rights will ensure that the upcoming election seasons in Wisconsin will be full of dirty tricks.

3. Florida

Oh, Florida. The ground zero of voter suppression—and if Governor Rick Scott and the state's Republicans have their way, it'll stay that way.

Former President Bill Clinton turned his wrath Rick Scott's way over one provision, that imposes a five-year waiting period for ex-prisoners to get their voting rights back. "Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they've paid their price? Because most of them in Florida were African Americans and Hispanics who would tend to vote for Democrats, that's why," he said.

Scott's bill requires outside groups who register voters to register their volunteers with the state and face fines if they don't turn in ballots within 48 hours—the League of Women Voters says it'll shut down voter registration activity.

It cuts down early voting from 15 days to eight—this after the 2008 election saw more than half of all votes in Florida cast early or by absentee ballot.

Cristina Francisco-McGuire of the Progressive States Network noted of 2008:

Then-Governor Crist actually extended the early voting hours after millions of people lined up to vote early, some waiting hours to cast their ballots. Though many wanted to avoid the long lines and other debacles that notoriously characterized the 2004 elections, Obama's ground operation in the state encouraged early voting by bringing movie stars like Matt Damon into Tampa for early-voter rallies and holding drum-line marches in Miami's predominantly black communities. Overall, 1.1 million African American voters cast ballots in the state, and 96% of those votes went to Obama. Obama won the state by a margin of less than 240,000 votes, thanks in part to the 54% of African American voters who cast a ballot at early voting sites.

And if all that isn't enough, the law also revokes a four-decades-old policy of allowing voters to change their address when they vote and still cast a regular ballot. Instead, voters who have moved and haven't managed to update their address by Election Day are stuck with provisional ballots, which are rarely counted.

The Florida ACLU and Project Vote have challenged the law under the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and in five counties, the law cannot go into effect without pre-clearance by the Justice Department because of the long history of black voter suppression there.

Historian Karl Shepard, incensed by attacks on voters in Florida and around the country, noted the long history of Southern voter disenfranchisement, and warns, “Welcome to the new face of Jim Crow – in 2011 – black people and college students.”

Not coincidentally, perhaps, these are very voters credited with giving Barack Obama the edge in 2008, and President Obama and other Democrats will be depending on them again in 2012.

 4. Ohio

Ohio State Rep. Robert Mecklenborg was one of the key sponsors of Ohio's bill that would require a driver's license or one of five other forms of ID to vote.

It's been called possibly the nation's most restrictive voter identification law because of the narrow range of acceptable documents.

Mecklenborg himself doesn't have a valid driver's license. We know this because he was arrested just before sponsoring the bill on drunk driving charges—without his ID. What he did have with him was a young woman and detectable amounts of Viagra in his system. No word if those will become requirements for Ohio voters.

Mecklenborg may be stepping down, but the voter ID bill already passed the House and awaits a Senate vote. The ACLU is already prepared to challenge the bill, which it says will “disenfranchise thousands of Ohioans to solve a problem that does not exist.”

Meanwhile, not content with pushing for stricter requirements for voters, Ohio Republicans passed a bill that will shorten the period of time in which people can vote, and to eliminate the “Golden Week” in which voters can both register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot. Early voting allows people without flexible schedules more time to vote and cuts down on long election-day poll lines, and same-day voter registration has been shown to significantly increase voter turnout. 

Ohio, which is expected to be crucial for 2012 presidential candidates as well as the center of its own firestorm over anti-union bills, has had success with its early voting since 2005 (after 2004's controversial election). These combined attacks on voters' rights could undo all those advances and then some—they could not only swing a referendum, but another presidential election. But progressive groups are already preparing to challenge the new election law--the group Fair Elections Ohio submitted the first 1000 signatures on a petition to hold the bill until voters can weigh in on it, as a ballot measure in 2012. 

5. Missouri 

“This [photo ID] mandate would disproportionately impact senior citizens and persons with disabilities, among others, who are qualified to vote and have been lawfully voting since becoming eligible to do so, but are less likely to have a driver’s license or government-issued photo ID,” Nixon said in a letter explaining his veto. “Disenfranchising certain classes of persons is not acceptable.” 

That was Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, as he vetoed a law in June that would have required a government-issued photo ID for voters. But the veto isn't the final step for the law. The state legislature passed the bill as an amendment to the state Constitution, meaning that despite the governor's veto, Missouri voters will still get to have the final say on the bill in the November 2012 election.

The state's Supreme Court has already struck down one voter ID law, back in 2006, ruling it a "heavy and substantial burden on Missourians' free exercise of the right of suffrage."

With the governor's veto, the voters who get to decide on the ID requirement in 2012 will not face a photo ID requirement—but they also miss out on what would have been a nine-day early voting period, also enacted by the same law. The inclusion of early voting in the same bill with the ID requirement is a particularly interesting trick, coupling a move that makes voting easier with one that makes it harder. And Republicans are threatening not to allow early voting to come up again unless matched with the ID requirements.

A 2009 study estimated that 230,000 Missourians were registered to voted but lacked a government-issued ID. The study found that black voters, young voters and low-income voters--voters who tend to lean Democratic, obviously--were more likely to be disenfranchised by the new law.

6. Alabama

Alabama was the seat of many of the Civil Rights era's biggest fights. Its voter ID law will have to be approved by the Justice Department before it can be enacted, to be sure that it doesn't violate 1965's Voting Rights Act by disproportionately targeting voters of color.

On the final day of the legislative session, Alabama lawmakers pushed through a bunch of measures, including yet another voter ID bill that requires a government-issued photo ID.

Like other states, Alabama would provide IDs to voters who do not otherwise have them at cost to the state. The law does not take effect until 2014, according to bill sponsor Rep. Kerry Rich, so voters won't have to show ID yet, but confusion over the meaning of the new law could drive down turnout well before 2014. 

Blogger mooncat at LeftinAlabama.com notes:

They know it will cost already cash-strapped local governments more, but there is not even a fig leaf toward helping them pay for it. And the costs are not trivial -- to include providing a new state photo ID for everyone without one, increased election costs, costs for voter education, and of course, litigation. 

And litigation will be coming—State Rep. James Buskey said the bill will be challenged. 

7. Tennessee

State Representative G.A. Hardaway, from Memphis, told the Commercial Appeal that a Tennessee measure requiring photo identification at the polls is "not about government," he said. "It's about beating Obama by any means necessary. And what we've found is that they're not afraid to use the power that they have in order to increase their power ... and by 'they,' I mean the Republicans."

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said the measure "unduly burdens the right to vote" and is the equivalent of a poll tax.

The legislature passed the bill anyway.

It goes into effect on January 1, and requires a government-issued photo ID to vote. People over 65 are excluded from the bill, but it is still expected to impact students, minorities and low-income voters.

Among the 30 new voting provisions (PDF) enacted by Tennessee's legislature, you also find early voting periods decreased by two days, additional crimes added to the list of felonies that make people ineligible to vote, and the removal of the limit on campaign contributions by an individual or corporation. The state is also required to provide free photo ID to voters—a provision that may cost up to a half million dollars.

8. South Carolina

South Carolina is estimated to have 178,000 voters who don't have the state-issued ID now required for them to vote. It's a good thing they have a very generous governor, determined to make up for the state's long history of discrimination, intimidation, and abuse of people of color at the polls. 

“Find me those people that think that this is invading their rights,” Governor Nikki Haley told a local news station, “And I will go take them to the DMV myself and help them get that picture ID.”

 Think Progress did the math on how much work Governor Haley has just signed herself up for: 

That DMV branch is open five days a week for 8.5 hours a day. Assuming Haley wants to save some time and gas, we’ll assume that her car can fit four passengers. That means that if every single one of these 178,000 voters were to present themselves to the governor’s mansion and request the free ride Haley just offered them, it would take just over 7 years, 4 months, 3 weeks and 5 days if she spends every single minute that the DMV is open doing nothing but playing taxi driver. That’s nearly two full terms — assuming there’s no traffic.

Like most of the states facing a new voter ID law, South Carolina has no recent reported cases of voter fraud, though a Myrtle Beach Tea Party leader insists that it happens. South Carolina's bill is so severe--and its voting rights history so bad--that it requires Justice Department approval before it goes forward—the S.C. Progressive Network calls the bill worse than similar measures in other states.

9. Texas

Texas Democrats say that Governor Rick Perry's priority voter ID bill intentionally targets black and Latino voters, and offered dozens of amendments to the bill to temper its impact on their constituents.

"I think it's about disenfranchising groups of people who do not historically vote for the Republican Party," said State Rep. Dawnna Dukes.

And in 2007, former Texas Republican Party political director Royal Masset told the Houston Chronicle that a voter-ID bill that failed that year in the legislature "could cause enough of a drop-off in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 percent to the Republican vote."

But Democrats were unable to stop Perry's bill this time, and now the three-term Texas governor has another success to trumpet as he oozes closer to a presidential bid.

"This is what democracy really is all about," Perry said when he signed the bill into law. "It's the integrity of every vote; that every vote counts. Today we take a major step in protecting the most cherished right of Americans."

“Illegal voting,” however, is now a felony.

10. Maine

Maine's State Senate rejected a photo ID bill in June, as Democrat after Democrat made strong arguments against it.

State Senator Stan Gerzovsky said:

"I'm going to have to take an 88-year-old mother, Mr. President, down to Motor Vehicles sometime before the next election, even though everybody in my community knows her well, and get a photo ID of her, because she stopped driving many years ago," he said. "She doesn't have a driver's license any longer, she doesn't have a clue where it is. We talked about it this weekend. And that's going to be a major inconvenience, not only to my mother but to a lot of other mothers and grandmothers."

The Democrats' arguments were able to sway enough Republicans to defeat the voter ID bill, though. So why is Maine still on this list?

Maine was a leader in the country with its nearly 40-year-old same-day voter registration law. Sixty-thousand Mainers (in a state with a population of 1.3 million, that's a not-insignificant number) took advantage of same-day registration in 2008, and it's credited with being the force behind the state's high voter turnout numbers.

And now that same-day voter registration is gone. But Mainers want it back, and are gathering signatures on petitions to get the issue on the ballot in November. With the defeat of voter ID in the state, maybe Maine will retain its high turnout numbers.

11. Rhode Island

Not only is Rhode Island not a Southern state with a long history of disenfranchising voters of color, but its voter ID bill was pushed by Democrats and signed into law by moderate independent governor Lincoln Chafee. What gives?

John Gramlich at Stateline wrote:

It is unclear, however, just how pleased Chafee actually is with the legislation he signed. As the Journal reports, he signed the voter ID bill over the long holiday weekend, but did not announce the signing on his website or by speaking with interested parties. Word of the signing leaked out only after the Rhode Island Tea Party — typically not the biggest ally of Democrats in the legislature — praised lawmakers and Chafee for enacting the new law.

Chafee signed the bills at the same time as he legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, and State Senator Harold M. Metts said his black and Latino constituents asked him to sponsor the bill out of their own concern for voter fraud.

Starting in 2012, the law will require poll workers to ask for a photo ID—though if they don't have one, they can present a Social Security or Medicare card. By 2014, voters need a government-issued photo ID, which will be issued for free by the state government.

Rhode Island is hardly a battleground on the federal level, so it's unlikely that the voter ID law there will have an impact on national elections, but its bipartisan support could be used as leverage by those supporting voter ID bills elsewhere that could have much more substantial effects. If Democrats and relatively moderate independents like Chafee are buying into the conservative frame that "voter fraud"--voters lying about their identity in order to vote--is a bigger problem than voter suppression, we could see a lot more bills like these in the coming years. 

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.